It’s 6am. I am wide awake even before I recognize the cackling of the birds that dwell in the colony outside my window, an old growth orange tree that split about 8 months ago in a windstorm. For days, half of the tree lay across the sidewalk and touched the asphalt of the street while the last tenuous threads of fiber connected still at the trunk; then the workman came one afternoon and carried off the pieces. Since then the birds have nestled in a little closer, or migrated to a neighboring ficus.
It’s 6am, and I think about how my therapist has been telling me that I need to stop trying to change people. I think about this and then temper it with the fact that she is white, affluent, and doesn’t live in a reality where people are so actively hurting her when they go to the ballot box. I think about how we in white culture try to avoid problems by default, how I thought I was being more progressive, and setting boundaries, and confronting my own demons. I think about my entire family voting for Trump anyway.
Like many white liberals, I am recognizing what the people of color in my life already knew, that white culture is deeply troubled, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and other distasteful phobias as well. I am recognizing that I and many other progressives are complicit in this situation because we have left middle America behind. We have dismissed them as ignorant, and literally stopped listening until only a radical hate monger seemed to hear their cries. I think about how we have been trying to ignore this because it is too uncomfortable to try to do anything about it. I think about our fear of complexity, and of rocking the boat, but more than anything I think about how I must find a way to do more.
All of this is true.
It is 6am, and the holidays are here, and I just want to be with my family. I want to connect with a feeling of acceptance that has never really been there for me because, until recently, I did not show them the real me to accept. I want to laugh and enjoy warm moments and talk about our lives. I want to share victories and challenges, and hear about their heartbreaks and promotions, but I feel like an outsider, an alien, and they feel it too. I am tempted to run, to hide, to avoid, because frankly, it’s easier.
Where do we go from here?
I want to let go of my own small perspective and be the bigger person, recognize the greater social context, and do whatever is best for society, but today I am just one boy who is tired of not talking to his parents. I am tired of the rift, the constant war, the battle to help them understand why they are on the wrong side of everything. I’m tired of defending myself at the end of every sentence, at the counterattacks, and the gridlock that feel like they have stalled progress.
I am tired of not feeling heard and understood. So are they. I am inflexible. So are they. I deeply believe in my view. So do they. We love each other, but you can love someone and still hurt them deeply. We all feel rejected.
I don’t think I am alone as I contemplate stepping away from a plate of mashed potatoes this year. A lot of us have had a rude awakening. We realized that there was a lot more wrong than we wanted to look at, a lot more work to do, and that somehow we have to find a way forward that goes beyond facebook likes and unfriending people. We need to truly reach across the table and listen deeper, forgive more, and find arguments that work, rather than just naming flaws.
My parents are people too; honest, hardworking, generally good people. This isn’t a defense of actions or positions, but we have to start looking for that good in people. The thing to connect with. We have to reimagine our loved ones not as enemies, but allies in waiting, to have faith that people will do the right thing. Good people can still have views and actions that hurt people, but I think sometimes we forget that it is really about knowledge. Good people don’t want to hurt people. Good people change their minds when they understand the impact of their choices, when they feel the truth of it. Good people stop and help each other when they are down.
What I know is that the distance isn't working. The silence isn’t working. A lot of good people just hurt us.
What has worked, as I reflect, were the moments when I was more patient than ever. When I listened quietly as they said the inflammatory. When I had the patience to not react to the offensive and the temerity to ask, "What do you mean when you say, 'in-your-face gay.'” When I listened. When I asked for examples of when she felt uncomfortable. When I let her be heard.
What has worked, was being more vulnerable than ever. When I explained how it felt to be constantly coming out to each new person, to have to decide when and how you will disclose that you are not what they assume you are. When I talked about the new guy at work and how, trapped in a car with him, sensing his resistance, I delicately tiptoed around his prejudice. I told her how I tried, nonchalantly, to drop the mention about my boyfriend, hidden in weekend plans. How I moved right by like it was a non issue. I told her about the change in his body language and how he went quiet. I told her about the unsolicited homophobic rant that he has no problems with “the homosexuals.”
I asked her if she has ever faced this kind of reaction when mentioning plans for Home Depot with her husband this Saturday. I asked if she might be more tempted to wear gay on her sleeve.
This year I went to Thanksgiving. I showed up like a kid in a Folder’s commercial from the holidays of my childhood, unannounced. I was welcomed by surprised and elated faces. My mother hugged me for an extra squeeze and whispered in my ear how much it meant to her to have all her kids for Thanksgiving. They hadn’t planned on a vegetarian being present. My father hugged my boyfriend, and then ran home to bring back a box of everything in their fridge that didn’t have meat in it. My father the mechanic, made a little tray of olives and tiny pickles for me and my boyfriend. Rough hands at work on a simple domestic gesture.
These are good people. That doesn’t excuse, or make exceptions, but maybe I shouldn’t forget that fact. They are trying. I can be grateful of that.
The birds keep chirping. Everything has changed. Nothing has changed. Both are true. We are more aware of the problem perhaps, but the world is just the same as yesterday. I want the world to be a fair and loving place already. Maybe that is entitlement. We have a lot of work ahead, but so has every other generation. It’s just our turn.
Now more than ever, it is important that we be radically vulnerable, open, honest, that we share our stories. That we stand firm in our right, and the right of all marginalized communities to exist as people, to find a way to have boundaries that protect us, but that don't encircle us in a bubble of comfort. To listen. To have the courage to talk about things we have been taught not to talk about. To have difficult conversations, to not see those who harm us as enemies to destroy, but endeavor for them to join us.
This is not the time to be silent, but it is a time for deeper listening, for hearing those who feel voiceless themselves, finding common ground, and showing them that we are truly one people, alike in seeking that place of comfort and acceptance. Each of us yearning to be safe, able to make a life for ourselves and our loved ones, and to belong.